Alfa Romeo arriving means the disappearance of the Sauber name from Formula 1. It also means that, behind the scenes, the strength of Ferrari’s 2019 campaign is being increased.
Having joined the sport at the end of 1992, Peter Sauber’s eponymous team have always been respectable midfielders with plucky performances and generally quick, tidy racing cars. Sauber were also good at bringing in talented rookies into the game. 2019 drivers Kimi Raikkonen & Antonio Giovinazzi both made their debuts with them (albeit 16 years apart) but other big names such as Felipe Massa, Sebastian Vettel, Robert Kubica & Heinz-Harald Frentzen also got their start with the Swiss team (some under the BMW reign).
The links with Ferrari are long established too. Back in 1996, Peter Sauber penned a deal with Ferrari that would see his cars equipped with previous-season Ferrari engines which were rebadged as Petronas; this deal would remain in place until 2005 and the BMW takeover. It promptly resumed in 2010, minus the Petronas badging.
Once BMW withdrew at the end of 2009 and Peter Sauber took back full control of his team, there were a handful of years where Sauber continued being strong midfield contenders. However, with the independent team struggling to find significant sponsors and slowly but surely being forced to turn to drivers with significant financial backing, the writing was on the wall that a buy-out would come. The most obvious sign of this was the contractual mess with drivers at the start of the 2015 season. Having signed Felipe Nasr (backed by Banco do Brasil) and Marcus Ericsson (Longbow Finance), Dutch driver Giedo Van Der Garde showed up at the season opener in Melbourne expecting to race as he had also signed a valid contract with team boss Monisha Kaltenborn.
A quite public legal battle thus ensued, with Sauber forced to sit out opening practice under court restrictions and, under a very public media glare, Van Der Garde was compensated for his contract and eventually shuffled away having been suitably placated. It illustrated the pressures the team were under, and drew criticism from all corners as it appeared as though Kaltenborn had hoped the simple problem of three drivers into two seats would just simply….go away. Not long after that, Kaltenborn and Peter Sauber sold their shares in the team and ownership fully passed over to Longbow Finance.
This money injection and stability seems to have done wonders for Sauber and the current upward trajectory they’re on can be traced back to this moment. Antonio Giovinazzi became the team’s reserve driver and got his chance to debut when Pascal Wehrlein was forced to miss two races with a neck injury. The young Italian was also getting some experience with Ferrari as their simulator driver and also began to get test outings where he invariably impressed with his natural speed.
The cosying up between Sauber & Ferrari continued in 2018. Having been running year old specification engines for years, a deal was signed that would see Sauber finally get the exact same engines that were running in the Scuderia’s cars – a significant step forward. This deal came about thanks to the arrival of Alfa Romeo as a prominent title sponsor. With the Fiat Chrysler Automobile parent company attempting to revive the image of the Alfa brand, the marque’s cloverleaf symbol appeared on the side of the 2015 Ferrari and has been on the side of the F1 cars ever since. Despite Ferrari being spun off from the parent FCA Group in 2016, the links between the two companies remain strong; the late Sergio Marchionne acted as Chairman of Ferrari & CEO of FCA up until his death in July 2018.
For 2019, the FCA chequebook has been opened wider and they have bought naming rights over Sauber. While details of the deal are not yet known, the Sauber name thus disappears and Alfa Romeo become, in effect, a ‘works’ team. One that retains autonomy in terms of its owners and management, but with the significant financial backing of FCA. Of course, FCA themselves are under the control of a holding company called Exor; controlled by the Agnelli family. Exor own both FCA & Ferrari, meaning that Sauber & Ferrari are now, formally, bankrolled by the same umbrella. John Elkann is the current Chairman of FCA and also took over as Chairman of Ferrari after the death of Marchionne, also meaning that Elkann is now ‘the big boss’ of both Ferrari & Alfa Romeo.
What does this all mean, in simple terms? Well, there is now a semi-official Ferrari ‘B-team’ racing on track in 2019. In May last year, chief designer Simone Resta left Ferrari to switch to Sauber and lead their design for this year. Kimi Raikkonen then left Ferrari to switch over (despite Ferrari apparently having no idea this was going to happen, however believable that is), before Sauber announced the arrival of Giovinazzi. All in all, it appears as though the plan has been, all along, to bolster the team’s resources and personnel with the knowledge and experience of Ferrari. This will also allow both teams to reap the benefits of learning from each other and gleaning different ideas without the issue of running different engines or gearboxes. R&D costs can also come down as a result, something that could be very important to Ferrari’s stock price as a company on the NYSE.
This arrangement effectively means there are four Ferrari cars on track this season. Added to the reports that Ferrari are set to get a bigger budget for 2019, this equips the team to go hunting Mercedes with a vengeance this season. Merc have enjoyed an easier time racing the Force Indias in recent seasons, due to the FIs customer status with Merc, but with new owners coming onboard in the form of Racing Point, there’s no guarantee that the new team will be quite as compliant as before. Red Bull & Toro Rosso’s symbiotic relationship has been a prominent one recently, with the junior team effectively acting as a test team for Red Bull’s switch to Honda power for 2019. The knowledge transfer between the two, as a result, could be very beneficial for them this year also.
For now, officially, Alfa Romeo are back in Formula 1 as a team in their own right. Having joined the inaugural World Championship in 1950 as a rival to Ferrari, they won the first two World Championships with Giuseppe Farina & Juan Manuel Fangio and would have claimed the Constructor’s also had it existed back then. Leaving ahead of 1951, they returned in 1979 for a stuttering seven seasons before departing again. Current CEO of FCA, Michael Manley, says that Alfa’s arrival underlines that the team are here to become something big again:
“Alfa Romeo Racing is a new name with a long history in Formula One. We’re proud to collaborate with Sauber in bringing Alfa Romeo’s tradition of technical excellence and Italian panache to the pinnacle of motorsport. Make no mistake: with Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi on one side of the pit wall and Alfa Romeo and Sauber expertise on the other, we are here to compete.”